Northern France, between the Ile de France and the Belgian frontier, consists of the old provinces of Picardy, Artois and Flanders, now included within the two administrative regions of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. In the center of the area there are some of the finest French cathedrals, in the north there is France's largest industrial region, and in the west, along the shores of the Channel and the North Sea, there are stretches of beautiful coastal scenery and many attractive bathing resorts.
The old province of Picardy, on the northern fringe of the Paris basin, with Amiens as its capital, corresponds broadly to the present-day département of Somme and parts of Pas-de-Calais, Oise and Aisne. It consists of a chalk plateau 100-200m/325-650ft above sea level covered by a fertile layer of loam and traversed in the west by the Somme and in the east by the Oise but otherwise little broken up by rivers. It is predominantly an agricultural region, growing wheat, sugar-beet and textile plants. The damp oceanic climate has favored the development of pastoral farming (cheese production) over much of Picardy and the adjoining district of Thiérache to the east. Apart from agriculture, a major contribution to the economy is made by the textile industry.
Artois corresponds broadly to the département of Pas-de-Calais, with Arras as its chief town, and, with the exception of the marshland east of Calais, forms the northern part of the chalk plateau of northern France. In addition to wheat, oats, sugar-beet and textile plants the crops include hops and tobacco. Stock-farming is also of importance to the area. In northeastern Artois, roughly between Douai and Béthune, is the northern French coalfield, which brought great prosperity to the area, particularly in the late 19th C. Since the mid 1960s, however, the mining industry has been in steady decline, and the output of coal is now little more than 10% of the output of the early 60s. Special support has, therefore, been given to the local textile industry.
French Flanders, the southern part of the old province of Flanders, most of which is in Belgium, corresponds to the Nord département (chief town Lille). Most of it is completely flat and intensively cultivated. The real Flanders is the eastern part of the area with its Flemish-style towns and villages, in which the older inhabitants mostly still speak Flemish, while the eastern part has closer affinities to the predominantly Belgian district of Hainaut or Hainault. Central Flanders, south of Lille, includes part of the northern French coalfield, and is more industrialized than Artois. Flanders is famed for its linen and cotton. Here, as in Picardy and Artois, an extensive network of canals facilitates the transport of goods.
Artois, which from 863 belonged to the County of Flanders, was brought under the authority of the French crown by Philippe Auguste towards the end of the 12th C., together with Upper Picardy; Lower Picardy became part of France only in 1369. After a brief return to the County of Flanders the County (from 1297 Duchy) of Artois passed to Burgundy in 1384, followed by Picardy (which had remained French) in 1435; after Charles the Bold's death in 1477, however, both territories reverted to France. In 1493, under the treaty of Senlis, Artois was ceded to Maximilian I of Habsburg. Most of it returned to France in 1659, under the treaty of the Pyrenees; the rest followed in 1678, under the treaty of Nijmegen.
There are facilities for a great variety of sports, including riding, tennis and golf; a network of footpaths and tracks offers ample scope for walkers and cyclists; and boats can be hired at many places on the Somme, Marne, Oise and Aisne. All kinds of water sports can be practiced on the rivers and on the coast. There are a number of nature and leisure parks, for example the "Domaine des Iles" leisure park at Ham and a country park at Ermenonville with a zoo and Wild West shows.
A popular attraction is the underground town (ninth- 14th C.) in the Grottes de Naours, between Amiens and Doullens.
The battlefields of the First World War on the Somme draw many visitors.